Dirt for Thought – A Composting Manifesto

Every day, the question “how sustainable am I?” is asked by most of Portland, OR  residents. But the focus has always been on eating locally, using less gas, recycling and replacing nonrenewable resources with renewable ones. Only recently Portland residents have been asking themselves “how can I reduce my garbage?” thanks to the city’s recent initiative “Portland Composts!” This initiative is focused on reducing garbage in residential areas by composting food waste instead of throwing it in the trash. It began two years ago as a trial, but last year Portland officially made the switch and composting is now in the forefront of every Portlander’s mind.

Portland is my hometown and I love it dearly; therefore I’m easily influenced by city initiatives. “Portland Composts!” was no exception. When I first learned that Portland was making the switch to food composting I was also taking a sustainability class at my high school. So while I was learning about the effects of food waste in class I got to experience my hometown making positive changes concerning the same subject. Unfortunately, my house isn’t within the “Portland Composts!” limits (I live in the suburbs) and my family wasn’t able to join the initiative. That didn’t stop it from inspiring me to compost though. I began doing research and broached the subject to my family. I began watching the amount of my food waste and where it went. “Portland Composts!” inspired me to become a food compost advocate.

Not everyone has city-wide programs that can inspire them to compost though.  Most of the time, no one knows what composting is or how to begin. But with some research and information, all American home owners and families can easily begin composting.

What is food composting?

Food composting is the decomposition of food waste into a dirt like substance that can be used as fertilizer. It is a way for us to reuse the food we don’t eat that is environmentally friendly.

Why do we need to compost food?

Back in 1825 Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote 20 aphorisms of food in his book The Physiology of Taste: or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, basically describing all of the issues humans have with food. Of all 20 aphorisms,  he never spoke of food waste or how to fix the problem; probably because it wasn’t an issue back then. But in American society today food waste is becoming more and more of an issue.

Everyone knows that the United States has an issue with garbage. We are notorious for wasting too much and we are running out of places to put it. In 2010, the United States produced about 250 million tons of trash, which is about 4.43 pounds of trash per person per day. Imagine,  each person in the U.S. produces about 1,616.95 pounds of trash in a year. And that’s only the things we throw away (food, cups, wrappers, etc), it doesn’t even include water waste or use of nonrenewable resources. But we don’t consider that we don’t have to throw away everything we do.

Food is a major contributor to the trash we generate but it doesn’t need to be. If we started composting food instead of throwing it away our garbage would decrease dramatically. In just a year of officially composting, Portland has reduced the amount of garbage by 38 percent, and that doesn’t include the nearby towns and suburbs (Hillsburo, Milwaukie, Beaverton etc). Once the program grows, the amount of garbage will continue to decline. Basically, composting will reduce the amount of waste that has to go into a landfill.

Another reason why we need to compost food is that it’s bad for food to go into landfills. When food is put into a landfill it will naturally start to decompose. But as the food decomposes it releases a gas, methane, which a green house gas that contributes to global warming. The reason methane gas is released is because the decomposing food doesn’t receive oxygen and undergoes anaerobic decomposition. On the other hand, when food is composted it receives oxygen, undergoes aerobic decomposition and doesn’t produce methane. Methane traps 23 times as much heat in the atmosphere as the same amount of Carbon Dioxide. The release of methane gas from landfills also accounts for 34 percent of all methane emissions in the United States.

So we have two major reasons why throwing food away is bad, and the answer to both is composting food. If we composted food we would reduce the amount of trash that goes into a landfill each year (which would also cut back on spending) and we would reduce the amount of methane emissions into our atmosphere. Food compost also produces fertilizer, so not only do we benefit from reducing our impact on the planet but there are also many uses for compost.

Despite all of the benefits of composting, most people don’t know what it is. It isn’t practiced in most homes and the majority of cities in the United States don’t practice industrial or residential composting. In a survey I took of 50 Chapman University students, only 59.46 percent of students knew what composting was. But when I asked them to describe what they thought composting was, many of them only had a vague idea. Most students thought it was a form of recycling. Also, even though almost 60 percent knew what composting was only 24.32 percent actually compost. The reason why so many students know about composting but don’t practice it is because they aren’t sure how to on campus or at home.

But why does it have to be like this? How can people know what composting is, but not know how to do it ? It isn’t a difficult thing to do, and even the smallest amount of composting helps the planet.

Photo Credit: oregonlive.com

Photo Credit: oregonlive.com

How to compost.

First, start off small. It is difficult for anyone to make drastic changes in life so starting small and easing into a new lifestyle is important for success. Begin with fruits and vegetables. They are the easiest to compost and don’t require a special bin. At my dorm room in college, I don’t have the time to compost all of my food, nor do I have the necessary items to compost. Instead, my roommate and I throw our fruit and vegetable scraps into the bushes near our room. After a few weeks, the food is gone and all I had to do was put it in the bushes. Here is a warning though: if you’re going to throw your food outside, put it places that are hidden or inconspicuous. The reason being is that we have all grown up in a time where littering is bad and we dislike seeing trash on the ground. But people don’t understand that compost isn’t trash and will become annoyed with seeing decomposing banana peels out in the open. Also, make sure to throw your fruits and vegetables in dirt or natural areas. This may seem silly, but I have seen people try to compost food on a sidewalk and it won’t decompose the same. It can also stain the sidewalk.

I had an experience with staining a sidewalk in August. I had a blackened banana that was so rotten the stench spread more than a few feet. When I took it to some bushes, the whole banana broke from the weakened stem and splattered onto the cement. I didn’t know what to do so I left it for a few days before it was swept into the grass. But after those few days the rotten banana left a stain that is still there today. It isn’t an attractive sight and I see it every day right outside my door. Moral of the story, don’t let rotting food sit on cement.

Once you have gotten used to separating your fruit and vegetables, or you have access to a compost bin, you can start composting more food. First, you will need to buy a compost bin. Usually households will have a small, kitchen container so food can be easily composted while preparing meals or while cleaning up. These containers should have a liner so they don’t get dirty or smelly. These bins can be made yourself or purchased. Just google “buy kitchen compost bin.” Bin prices can range anywhere from $20 to over $100 depending on size and how heavy duty it is.

When the kitchen container is full, take the food waste out to a large compost bin. Make sure the bin has a lid to keep rodents out. If your city collects compost like Portland does, your compost will be collected the same way trash is. In Portland it is collected weekly. If your city doesn’t have curbside pick up, you get to use the compost for yourself! When the compost turns into a fertilizer, you can use it for gardening or as soil in some areas of your yard.

A small note: the biggest issue many people have with composting is the odor. When food decomposes, it lets off a stench that reminds many of mildew. It is especially strong during the summer or in hot weather. It is unpleasant, but the odor is worth it if you’re helping the environment. Unfortunately, there aren’t many known ways to reduce the odor. The best way to reduce odor is to layer yard waste and food waste, like lasagna. Also, place your compost bin in an area where the smell isn’t noticeable in your house (far corner of backyard).

Here is a list of what can be composted (at least in the city of Portland, it may be different in other cities). It is important to know what can and can’t be composted. A good rule to follow by is “if it’s organic material, it can be composted.” This can include napkins and paper plates.

And here is a website with a more detailed description of composting, which includes the science behind decomposition.

Most importantly, tell your friends and family about food composting. Though it isn’t practiced in most cities, it is extremely important to know the effects food waste has on our world when not composted. And when the word gets out, maybe more cities will make the switch along with households. But people have to be informed for that to happen.

So go ahead and start your composting journey. Begin will small food scraps, like fruits and vegetables, and work your way up to composting all food waste in your house. I guarantee that you will see the difference it will make in your trash and carbon foot print.


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